Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: ‘Young and Poor’ at Risk from Trigger-Happy Police

BUENOS AIRES, Jan 6 2009 (IPS) - In the 25 years since the end of one of the bloodiest dictatorships in the history of Latin America, Argentina has racked up a total of 2,557 deaths from abuses in police stations and prisons, summary executions or trigger-happy police, according to an organisation for families of the victims.

The Coordinating Committee against Police and Institutional Repression (CORREPI) describes the profile of most police victims as “dark-skinned youngsters living in poor neighbourhoods with a high level of violence.”

More than half the victims were under 25, and two-thirds were under 35, CORREPI said in its annual report released in late 2008 in the historic Plaza de Mayo in front of the seat of government in the Argentine capital.

The study highlighted 1,341 cases described as on-the-spot shootings, or “summary executions,” sometimes with the involvement of “death squads,” especially in “the Greater Buenos Aires conurbation and districts within the city itself.”

In second place, 822 deaths occurred since 1983 in prisons, police stations or “in custody.” CORREPI says that the worst places for such abuses are the provinces of Mendoza, in the west, Santiago del Estero in the north, Santa Fe in the northeast and Buenos Aires in the east, and that the deaths are usually reported as “suicides by hanging or fire.”

In 2004, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a resolution condemning prison conditions in the province of Mendoza. Furthermore, in every case of prison riots and fires, in which dozens of inmates die, their families complain that the prison guards used excessive force, or adopted a “laissez-faire” attitude.

CORREPI’s statistics continue with what they categorise as “intra-force violence,” which includes “210 cases in which victims and killers were colleagues in the same service or force.”

In the chapter on “other circumstances,” the group refers to “105 deaths of passersby or third parties caused by the disregard for human life displayed by police officers.” In fifth place, 52 people were killed in protests and demonstrations.

Finally, 23 deaths resulted from “fabricated charges or as a consequence of other crimes,” and a further eight deaths from unspecified causes.

Gustavo Filograsso, a member of CORREPI, told IPS that the figure of 2,557 deaths due to police brutality is only “part of the total, as there are in fact many more cases.

“What we are talking about is not illegal repression, but state repression which is moving forward on the legal front, and is being legitimised by the legislative reforms that are being approved in quick succession. In fact, in the justice system, many cases are won but many are also lost,” he said.

CORREPI activists take action when they receive a complaint, or on their own initiative, and they monitor articles in the press. “We corroborate what happened when ‘confrontations’ between the police and criminals are reported in the media, and we find that 90 percent of cases turn out to be fabricated,” Filograsso said.

The organisation is made up mainly of lawyers, and works to defend victims of police brutality. It was formed in 1991 in response to the violent death of a young man, Walter Bulacio, who was arbitrarily arrested by the Buenos Aires police after attending a concert by the rock group Redonditos de Ricota. He was taken to a police station, badly beaten, and died in hospital one week later with a fractured skull.

Filograsso said the government of former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and the current administration of Kirchner’s wife, President Cristina Fernández, have the highest death toll at the hands of state security forces, despite the fact that they are recognised for their policies of promoting the trials of those responsible for human rights violations during the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

“Their governments have been responsible for the greatest repression” since 1983, Filograsso said.

Kirchner and Fernández lead the centre-left sector that is predominant today in the Justicialista (Peronist) Party (PJ), founded by Juan Domingo Perón in the early 1940s, which covers a wide ideological spectrum, from leftwing to far-right groups.

With regard to the pronounced differences between the perception of these recent governments by leading human rights groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the position taken by CORREPI, Filograsso said “while respecting their track record, nowadays, in concrete terms, we no longer have a close relationship.”

Raúl Abraham, a lawyer and adviser to the Axel Blumberg Foundation, set up in 2004 by the father of a young man who was kidnapped and murdered, which promotes “zero tolerance” or “strong-arm” policies on crime, disagreed with CORREPI’s conclusions.

“The police do not have the elements they need to fight crime. Criminals die because they are criminals, period. The police are often hampered in their actions,” he said.

Abraham told IPS that “ineffectiveness on the part of judicial officials means that many criminals are not where they ought to be.” The Foundation proposes fast-track oral trials before juries and tougher penalties, and criticises measures to ensure alleged criminals’ rights.

Jorge Casanovas, a former judge, justice minister for the province of Buenos Aires and lawmaker for a rightwing sector of the PJ, has similar views. “The police have been disarmed in every sense: not only in terms of training and weapons, but also in terms of their authority and morale,” he told IPS.

After Casanova’s period as minister, another PJ government of Buenos Aires province carried out a drastic reform of its police force, which was criticised by the right.

But present Governor Daniel Scioli, of the PJ centre-right, put a stop to the reforms, and has promoted measures like lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 or even 14.

According to Casanovas, “the most important factor undermining public safety is drugs, which are the greatest cause of crime.”

On the other hand, Vilma Ripoll, a Trotskyist political leader and former presidential candidate for the Socialist Workers’ Party-New Left, said in an interview with IPS that “the repressive state apparatus has not been dismantled, and the police continue to use the same methods as they did during the dictatorship.

“In the metropolitan area of Greater Buenos Aires, the police are lords and masters of the brothels and the drug trade, and they see young people as the enemy,” she said.

Ripoll advocates an oversight and monitoring role for ordinary citizens and human rights organisations in police stations, and for judges and police inspectors to be elected by popular vote, with the possibility of being dismissed.

Over the last two decades, lack of public safety has been gaining ground among the concerns of ordinary Argentines, as social indicators have deteriorated on a scale not seen in the country for the last 60 years.

In response to this concern, former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), of the PJ’s populist right wing, proposed during his failed reelection campaign in 2003 “to bring the tanks out on to the streets,” meaning using the army to fight common crime.

Along the same lines, Menem’s vice president during his second term, Carlos Ruckauf (1995-1999), called on police in the province of Buenos Aires to “shoot thieves on sight,” during the 1999 election campaign.

The wave of opinion in favour of strong-arm policies meant that even notorious participants in the military dictatorship received voters’ support, such as former General Antonio Domingo Bussi in mayoral elections in the northern province of Tucumán, and former police officer Luis Abelardo Patti, who became mayor of the city of Escobar, in the northern part of Buenos Aires province.

Since then, Bussi has been sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, which he is serving under house arrest because of his advanced age. Patti, who had publicly defended the use of torture, is serving a sentence for the same charge in jail.

A study titled “Mapa da Violência: Os jovens da América Latina 2008” (Map of Violence: Young People in Latin America 2008), by the Brazil-based Latin American Technological Network (RITLA), published in November by the Brazilian government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, shows that the level of violence in Argentina is by no means the worst in Latin America.

Using data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for 2003 to 2006, the study reports that there were 5.8 murders a year per 100,000 population in Argentina, slightly higher than the 4.5 per 100,000 in Uruguay and 5.4 in Chile.

This group of Southern Cone countries has murder rates well below those of El Salvador, with 48.8 per 100,000 population, Colombia with 43.8, Venezuela with 30.1, Brazil with 25.2 and Mexico with 9.3. The murder rate in the United States is also higher, at six per 100,000 population.

However, among young people aged 15-24, the murder rates rise to 9.4 per 100,000 people in that age range in Argentina, 92.3 in El Salvador, 73.4 in Colombia, 64.2 in Venezuela, and 51.6 in Brasil. On average, in Latin America, young people aged 15-24 are more than twice as likely to be murdered than the rest of the population.

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